Sunday, 29 April 2012

"Old Fire" Watercress Soup

At the farmer's market, the poultry stall also sells small bunches of watercress, gathered from the river that runs near their farm. I like that somewhat romantic notion of cooking things that were growing around each other before they ended up in my kitchen. It's not an entirely new concept, and that's probably the way people used to cook and combine flavours. Just eating in season means you often end up putting together produce that grow at the same time; but considering "where" instead of "when" can be a fun, different way to search for inspiration. 

Since the weather has been just miserable these days, I picked up a chicken carcass for some good old chicken soup. I don't often buy a whole chicken, it just doesn't make sense when you're cooking for one, and a carcass is a perfect and super cheap option for making homemade stock, or bone broth. With the stock, you could probably add some watercress and blend it up with some potatoes and fancy creme fraiche for a creamy green soup a la Gordon Ramsay, but I thought of a simpler light soup that my mum often makes. My sisters and I fight over this soup, so it is pretty good stuff. Of course, my mum does it in a traditional black claypot, with a mix of pork ribs, letting the bones simmer slowly over a charcoal fire; I just do it in my trusty slow cooker, but the idea is the same-- a deceptively clear soup that's actually rich with flavour and nutrients. This kind of slow-cooked goodness is called 老火汤 , literally translated as "old fire soup". 

serves 2-3
1 free-range chicken carcass (or about 350g of pork ribs, or a mix)
1 large bunch of watercress
1 large carrot, chopped into large chunks
3 tbsp of goji berries (yes those dried raisin-like things in your raw trail mix, we traditionally eat them cooked)
6 red jujube dates (NOT the black ones from turkey. If unavailable, use more goji and carrots, but you can easily find them, along with goji, for very cheap in an Asian supermarket.)
unrefined sea salt, to taste  
about 1 water (1.5l if not using slow-cooker)

1. Blanch the carcass in boiling water for 5 min and drain along with any scum. This makes for clearer soup later, the hallmark of good old fire soup.
2. Add the carcass, carrot and dates into a pot, bring to a boil, and immediately reduce heat to very low and let simmer for 2 hours, or more. I just dump it all into the slow-cooker and leave it for 6 hours.
3. 45 min towards the end, remove the carcass, shredding any meat from it, and set aside. If you use pork ribs, no work needed. Add the goji berries and watercress to cook. 
4. That's it, season with unrefined sea salt if necessary, and scoop into a bowl with some chicken, and serve up with rice.

This is very light, no phwoar! of flashy flavours here, but there's something beautiful about how these delicate flavours all come together in a deliciously light broth. The watercress becomes meltingly soft, and the meat, tender and falling apart. The soup is incredibly nourishing, a perfect spring detox and antioxidant boost, and from the traditional chinese medicine point of view, blood-tonifying. A bowl or two is the Chinese mum's antibiotic to any sniffle or ache that might come with the spring showers.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ginger-Garlic-Spring Onion Miracle Sauce

With the wonderful variety of tender salad leaves, exciting wild greens, and coveted spears of asparagus taking over our menus now that it's spring, the spring onion seems kind of dull in comparison to the rest of what this season has to offer. Sure, we do use it, but more like an afterthought, the obligatory sprinkle of greenery at the end of a dish if we happen to be cooking asian. When I was little, I used to very carefully scoop out all those "irritating green bits" floating in my soup or tangled in my noodles, grumbling.

The world works in a funny way. I'm actually making a sauce pretty much simply out of spring onions, and willingly, in fact liberally, tossing it into my noodles. A miracle. And I'm actually loving it. It really is a miracle sauce. Stupidly simple to make, with nothing more than the holy trinity of chinese cooking-- ginger, garlic, and spring onions of course. I came across this idea when I read about the infamous momofuku ginger scallion sauce. Instead of just steeping the chopped spring onions in oil, I simmered them in the oil just ever so briefly, but that few seconds of heat mellows the sharp bite of spring onions, bringing out their natural sweetness, and at the same time, it releases the wonderful aroma of the garlic and ginger.

1 large bunch of spring onions
4 tbsp of minced ginger
2 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp good soy sauce (naturally fermented)
1/2 tsp rice vinegar
dash of toasted sesame oil
4 tbsp groundnut oil*
unrefined sea salt, to taste

To serve
a bundle of fresh egg noodles**

1. Heat the groundnut oil over a medium-high heat till shimmering, not smoking.
2. Add the garlic and ginger, and once they give off their aroma, add the spring onions and straight away remove from the heat. You'll see the spring onions wilt instantly and turn a brighter green.
3. Stir in the rest of the ingredients. That's it! To serve, blanch fresh egg noodles or pasta in salted boiling water till just cooked, drain, and toss with the sauce.

It's the simplest of ingredients, and the barest of cooking, but by some sort of miracle, this transformed into a sauce that was simply addictive. Noodles, tossed simply in this flavoursome, fragrant sauce, was good enough to eat alone. Reminded me slightly of the Singaporean samsui chicken sauce, and indeed I can imagine dipping Hainanese-style poached chicken in it. I advise you double the ingredients, this keeps for a week in the fridge and you'll finish it fast.

*You need a neutral oil that's not toxic and processed i.e. most vegetable oils. I usually go for saturated fats in cooking, lard from a happy pig would be yummy here, but admittedly less neutral, and well, less liquid.

*I used fresh handmade spelt tagliolini made by Phil from the farmer's market. I've been getting lots of free homemade pasta and pestos since I helped him with his stall revamp. I'm quite pleased with what I did, go take a look if you're curious or just want to indulge me.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Seared Radishes with Radish Leaf Miso Pesto (Top-to-Toe Eating)

Nose-to-tail eating's one of those foodie trends that's been gaining steam. If you've read my blog for a while now you should know I'm a fan of ears and trotters and all parts weird and icky. It might have been a very recent trend following the brilliance of Fergus Henderson, but it's always been a part of my culture growing up. You know what they say about the Chinese eating everything. Don't waste anything, bones included (I don't mean to gnaw on, I mean stock). It just makes a lot more sense, for the environment and your own pocket, to fully use and appreciate all that has been sacrificed to feed your stomach.

I think we need to apply this to vegetables too. I've called it top-to-toe eating. It pains me to see people pluck the tops off beetroots, or the outer leaves off cauliflower, when the whole plant is perfectly good to eat. I don't even like throwing my carrot/celery/leek ends, I just collect them in a freezer bag and dump them into stock.

Anyway I bring this up because it's Earth Day this Sunday, and as I write this, the count stands at 987,884,392, quite a bit away from the billion acts of green they're aiming for. I thought I'll share this spring dish as a way to pledge three acts of green at a go: eating local (get your radishes from the local farmer's market now, they're bang in season), eating more vegetables (it's spring, no excuse), and reducing waste (nothing's going into the bin).

1 large bunch of whole radishes
1 small handful of toasted almonds (pine nuts are expensive)
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp naturally fermented white miso
generous pinch of unrefined sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
your favourite extra virgin olive oil
squeeze of lemon
2 tbsp clarified butter (don't use evoo, saturated fats are more stable for high heat cooking.)

1. Prepare the radishes, separate tops from bottoms. Chop the bottoms into equal-sized pieces, halved or quartered if large. Wash the tops to remove any dirt from the leaves and roughly chop.
2. For the seared radishes, heat the clarified butter over medium-high heat, and when just sizzling, add the radishes cut-side down. Season, and sear until golden brown, about 5 min. Flip and repeat on the other side. If it had 3 sides, I kind of lazily ignored the last side.
3. For the pesto, combine all the ingredients except lemon in the food processor, adding the evoo as you g, enough to make a smooth paste. Finish with a squeeze of lemon. You can also do it by hand if you're enthusiastic. This will keep in the fridge for a couple of days if submerged under oil.

If you've only ever had radishes raw in salads and such, you should give cooked ones a try. I don't mean mushy tasteless over-boiled radishes; pan-seared ones still retain a slight refreshing crunch. At the same time, their sharpness mellows, and their light sweetness comes through, a great contrast to the salty peppery pesto. It's nonsense that people are willing to pay for those little leaves for their salads when you can get just as tasty ones free. Radish leaves have a nice mustard-y bite to them, pretty much like rocket or watercress, giving a more assertive pesto that's brilliant just as a dip for good bread even, or with pasta (or going by the asian theme, dress glass noodles with it.)

If you really still can't be bothered with getting the food processor/mortar and pestle out, I did a really simple yummy top-to-toe radish stirfry last year. Hope that's got everyone inspired to start rummaging your bin for food.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Fried Beehoon with Wild Garlic ("Singapore Noodles" the way we really do it at home)

Say "Singapore noodles" to any Singaporean and you're most likely met with a withering smile and an impatient sigh. It's funny how that has become the defining dish of a country who has the most amazing array of fried noodles-- char kway teow (move over pad thai!), fried hokkien mee, mamak-style mee goreng, just to name a few for you to get your research and salivary glands going-- the worst part being, that it doesn't exist in Singapore. We do have a lot of fried beehoon (rice vermicelli) dishes though, and to be honest, it's often a simple last-minute one-pan stirfry done at home by busy mums, so simple and homey that I've never come to appreciate the art of frying beehoon. I used to end up with clumpy beehoon that stuck to the pan until I phoned mum for help. Her method involves soaking the dried rice noodles in cold water for an hour first, till pliable, before frying. I kept virtuously to her teachings until I watched a shortcut used by my favourite chinese chef which yielded the same results.

Basic method sorted, the flavours and ingredients to add are up to you, ranging from beansprouts to leftover stewed pork belly (my mum's secret weapon to her beehoon). I used dried shrimps, shiitake mushrooms, omelette strips, and wild garlic. Wild garlic's kind of like the wild relative of chinese chives. It has lush green leaves which smell of garlic, with a slight hint of onion, but is much more delicate. It's everywhere now that it's spring, and if you're a forager, go grab your free greens while you can. I was just reading about susan's wild garlic adventures, but alas, I'm not a seasoned forager nor have I gotten any tip-offs; mine were from the farmer's market.

serves 1-2
100g dried beehoon (thin rice vermicelli noodles)
1 free-range egg, beaten
handful of dried shiitake mushrooms
handful of dried shrimps
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch of wild garlic
1/4 cup water
1 tbsp natural dark soy sauce (I mix a traditionally fermented shoyu+ 1 tsp blackstrap molasses)
unrefined sea salt, white pepper
1 tsp fried shallot oil (or toasted sesame oil)

1. Soak the dried mushrooms and shrimps in the warm water along with the dark soy sauce. As the mushrooms plump up (30 min), they take in the sweet soy sauce juices. At the same time, this mushroom-shrimp-flavoured soaking water will form the cooking broth for your beehoon to cook in later.
2. Prepare rice vermicelli (see above). Lower into boiling water with a drop of oil and a pinch of salt. Parboil for a minute. Drain onto a dish and cover to let steam while you prep and fry your ingredients (about 5 min).
3. Make a thin crepe-like omelette. Beat egg with a pinch of salt and pepper, then pour into a small heated frying pan, let set then flip when golden. Slice into strips. Drain the mushrooms and slice too.
4. Over a medium-hot pan, fry the chopped garlic and shrimps in lard till fragrant, then add the mushrooms, stir-frying for a min or so before adding the soaking liquid, sesame oil, and plenty of white pepper.
5. Bring everything to a bubbling simmer and then add the clump of beehoon (yes it will form one bouncy lump but don't fret), keep shaking and loosening with the chopsticks* all the while as the thirsty noodles soak up all that delicious flavoured broth and finish cooking.
It will happen very quickly, be careful not to overcook or everything will end up clumping again and sticking. Watch video for mental prep.
6. Toss in the wild garlic towards the end to wilt, give a quick final toss with the omelette strips and dish up immediately.

*With careful calculations given to avoiding more washing up, you can essentially use that single pair of chopsticks from start to finish-- beating the eggs, frying the ingredients, tossing the noodles, and finally, eating your meal.

Done right, you will be rewarded with loose(松), flowing strands of rice vermicelli, each noodle plump with more-ish flavours from the broth. The tender leaves of wild garlic impart a mild oniony-garlicky element that goes perfectly with stir-fried noodles; I pronounce it a more-than-worthy local and seasonal substitute for chinese chives. This is more like "Singapore noodles" to me, a nostalgic reminder of after-school lunches, class outings, and family potlucks.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Blog and Mind Spring Cleaning

I hate cleaning. I'm not dirty; I just avoid creating mess in the first place. When it gets down to doing it, it's usually not that much of an ordeal really, and I actually quite like the smug sense of freedom and accomplishment after.

You may have noticed the new look here. It's not fully there yet, but in the next few posts, the layout and feel of the site should become clearer. Post-spring cleaning, I write this now with a huge sense of release. I'm not just referring to the blog. Much like the way I handle the issue of physical mess, I tend to dodge carefully around less tangible messy issues that worry me.

At the start of the year, I was doing the essential undergraduate moan about everything, especially about life after uni. After 15 years of fulfilling your obligations simply by doing well in school, the prospect of stepping out into the Real World just seems like a towering stack of unwashed plates in the sink. I'm in my second year, a BA in graphic design at the illustrious Central Saint Martins college, but already I'm wondering where this will take me about this same time next year. You see, I don't want to be one of those people stuck in a 9-to-5 job typing reports in a cubicle, the reason why I took the scary plunge to pursue a creative but not-so-financially-wise degree. Coming to London is still one of the best decisions I've made, and I've discovered so much about myself and learnt so much, not in school, but just by being here. This blog for instance. It's a place where I share the other passion I've discovered, for food-- food prepared from scratch with love, food grown by the people here with love.

I still can't say for sure where I'm going, but I'm beginning to see where I want to head, and that's towards all the things I love. From this point on, I'm going to apply more of the art student in me to this blog, and yes that may sound like more work and a pretty stupid move especially as the tutors get increasingly over-enthusiastic in their briefs and their expectations, but it just feels like the right thing to do, and I'm not sure where this will take me, but hopefully doing the little things that feel right now will help bring me to a bigger place that feels just right.

Follow and watch this space

See here for more of me elsewhere.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Best Scrambled Eggs Experiment

I got a lot of eggs for Easter. I had huge plans for these eggs. But I didn't manage to get over my inertia (aka the bed and youtube) and ended up with a glut of unadorned eggs. So I've been having quite a lot of eggs the past few days, enough to hold a proper experiment with controls and options. It's okay because I love eggs, especially for breakfast, fried in a sandwich, soft-boiled with soldiers, half-boiled Singapore-style with soy sauce and white pepper, in an omelette (plain and french, or stuffed and slightly burnt), and of course, the breakfast menu must-have-- scrambled eggs.

I put aside my classic standard way of making scrambled eggs and looked at different chefs' idea of perfect scrambled eggs (including a fat-free version which was simply just horrid). In the end, I managed to try permutations of the following conditions:
1. Whisking the eggs together first vs whisking them in a pan
2. Starting in a cold pan vs a heated pan
3. Stirring over very low heat constantly for very long vs over higher heat for shorter
4. Stirring like mad from start to finish vs letting sit/gently folding
5. Adding milk/cream vs just butter
6. Adding milk/cream/butter at the start vs at the end
7. Salting at the start vs at the end

If you do your math that's 2^7= 128 scrambled eggs, if I change only one variable each time. But, no I didn't do it that systematically, I didn't have that many eggs. I have been eating scrambled eggs for breakfast since Saturday though. And the conclusion?

I realise there isn't a way to make the ultimate best scrambled eggs because everyone likes their scrambled eggs different. If you like it really creamy or one might call it runny, you'll like Gordon Ramsay's (1b, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6b, 7b); if you like quite delicate curds, you'll like Bill Granger's (1a, 2b, 3b, 4b, 5a, 6a, 7a); if you like it more golden and less creamy, you'll like the classic textbook Delia Smith's (1a, 2b, 3a, 4a, 5b, 6 a and b, 7a). Mine goes a bit like: 1a, 2b, 3a, 4a and b, 5a, 6a and b, 7a.

My Best Scrambled Eggs
serves 1
2 large free-range eggs
1 knob of butter (preferably from local and happy i.e. grassfed/organic cows)
2 tbsp fresh whole milk/cream (preferably from local and happy cows)
pinch of unrefined sea salt

To finish,
freshly ground black pepper and fresh herbs like dill or chives

1. Whisk eggs together with 1 tbsp of milk/cream and salt.
2. Heat heavy-based pan over medium heat and add the knob of butter. Once almost foaming, do not let brown, add the eggs.
3. Let sit for about 10 seconds, then use a wooden spoon to start lifting and folding from the bottom of the pan.
4. Reduce the heat to low, and then keep stirring until they're just beginning to set, but not set.
5. Remove from heat and stir in the other tbsp of cold cream, and serve immediately. It may look a tiny bit runnier than expected at that stage, but note that it continues cooking a little more in its residual heat.

No matter what, always serve over generously buttered warm toast, my favourite being a sourdough picked up from work at the farmer's market. You need the toast as a bed to cushion and mop up the eggy velvety curds. Scrambled eggs that can stand stiffly on their own for you to actually cut into and scoop from the free breakfast buffet platter onto your plate, are not really scrambled eggs. I'm not being fussy, I like and eat them anyway(:

And now that I've finished the last of my eggs, I need to really get away from lazy "Sunday" brunches every morning of the week. Spring break is almost over, and my to-do-list has a worrying small number of ticks. There's going to be some major changes happening to this blog, if all goes well, this week!

Friday, 6 April 2012

XO Fish Head Noodle Soup

This is one very special bowl of fish soup for a fishy Good Friday!

First of all, the fish head. So many people seem to be scared of heads, but really, it's delicious, and actually rich in collagen and iodine. If you're still squeamish about eating it, well, at least save it for making stock! This didn't even cost me a thing. I was working at the farmer's market, where we have a fish stall selling the freshest catch off the shores, looking at all the customers buying their fish fillets and the leftover fish carcasses tossed in a bucket. If you've been following my blog, you know how much I hate waste, and how much I love homemade stock, so of course the fish bones went into a bag and later, into my pot.

Secondly, if you've never been to Singapore, you'll probably go pooh over how 'cloudy' the stock is, and indeed the usual fish stock will call for a short, bare simmering of the bones for to get a clear broth. That's one way to have it and I do like it But another way we have it back home is as a milky white broth, not by adding milk (although some hawkers do cheat), but by the furious boiling of fish bones which are first fried, to create an emulsification of fat, collagen and stock.

Lastly, you've got the option of adding XO brandy to it, true Singapore-style. It's of course not Good Friday-friendly. It's also not cheap, and for someone who is not the best of drinkers, and who looks immature enough to have to pull out her identity card just to buy a screwdriver at the supermarket, I would probably have just used rice wine had I not been gifted a very cute mini bottle from a friend.

XO Fish Head Noodle Soup
(adapted from watching Yummy King videos, and experimenting with a traditional fish stock)
For stock
500g chopped fish trimmings, bones and head (Not oily fish like salmon, it'll be 'smelly'. I think mine was a mix of cod and sea bream.)
2" slice of ginger
4 stalks spring onion
1 litre of water
Oil for deep frying (Saturated fats like coconut oil/unrefined palm oil/ghee/lard from happy animals are good options because they don't go rancid at high temperatures.)
unrefined sea salt, white pepper
(opt) tiny dash of XO brandy (or sub with rice wine)

To serve
1 cup of stock
1 serving of rice noodles i.e. beehoon (you want those which are round and spaghetti-thick)
fish slices (if you've not got a meaty fish head/tail)
small handful of greens (traditionally chye sim. I used some tender sprout tops.)

1. Wash the fish bones and head well and pat dry. Rub all over generously with salt. Heat oil in a wok, and add the carcass to fry till golden brown, a couple of min, more or less depending on size of carcass pieces.
2. Add the water and bring to a furious boil for less than a minute, then immediately remove from the heat and let it simmer gently for 20 minutes with the ginger and spring onions. Add the brandy right at the end, if using. Adjust seasoning, adding white pepper and sea salt to taste.
3. To serve, cook the rice noodles and blanch the greens separately in boiling water, drain, and place in a bowl. If you are using the fish slices, marinate them in a little salt and white pepper, and blanch for a couple of seconds; I had a meaty fried fish head and tail to keep me happy. Ladle a cup of hot stock over, and scatter fried shredded ginger over.

The fish soup is a delicious milky white broth, not 'fishy-smelling' at all because of way it's been fried first, and then simmered with ginger and spring onions, and if you used the brandy, it's also got that extra heavenly whiff of booze and a rich depth of flavour. Although it's not a clear light soup, it's actually not heavy at all, and a scoop of that with slippery rice noodles was simply comforting, even without the fish itself. All that from something which might have very well gone into the bin ;)

If you're looking for pretty (and tasty) egg ideas, I've blogged about Tea-Leaf Marbled Eggs 茶叶蛋 before. It used to be one of my popular posts so you could see it on the right, but it's dropped off the list, so I'm giving it a little shout-out for Easter!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Stuffed Mushrooms and Fava, the "Greek Hummus"

It rained today and I immediately had a bitter flashback to the same time last week in Greece, when I couldn't open my eyes because the sun was in my face. I can't bring myself to Greece again, at least not until I've saved up for a few months, but I can bring a tiny bit of Greece to me.

Fava is a Greek dip much like the more popularly known hummus, just that it's made with the a variety of the humble yellow split pea, instead of chickpeas. Santorini fava is apparently superior in taste, colour and texture and hence a must-have on the island, and we had it with yummy toasted pita bread. Here in London, I can only settle for the yellow split peas from the Indian grocer's down the road, and toasted stale bread (it was good sourdough bread though, a Hoxton rye from Saturday's shift at the farmer's market).

Greek Fava
1 cup of yellow split peas
slightly more than 2 cups of water
1 red onion, chopped finely
juice of 1/2 a lemon
unrefined sea salt
good drizzle of your favourite extra virgin olive oil
parsley, to garnish

Serving ideas
toasted pita/bread (I actually really liked dipping crusty sourdough toast into this)
handful of button or chestnut mushrooms

1. Wash the split peas well. I also soaked them overnight which helps to make them more digestible and reduces the 'active' cooking time the next day, though they do cook up pretty easily anyway.
2. Bring the split peas to a boil, removing any froth on the top, and add half of the onions to the pot, and then let simmer steadily till most of the water has been absorbed and the split peas are now soft and mushy.
3. Season now (too soon and it will never soften), and add the evoo and lemon juice, and mash using the back of a wooden spoon for a more rustic, textured fava. Or if you prefer a smooth puree, use a blender.
4. Serve, making a little well in the middle to hold the rest of the onions, a sprig of parsley, and another good drizzle of evoo. Dip bread in and enjoy!

Or, for stuffed mushrooms,
5. Pop the stems from the mushrooms, and toss the mushrooms with olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. Stuff the cavity with as much fava as you can, I also sprinkled some thyme over, and then bake in a 180 degrees celsius oven for about 25 min, or till the mushrooms are cooked and release their juices, and the stuffing gets crusty.

This recipe makes quite a lot of fava, more than enough for a couple of slices of toast, which was why I decided to stuff the extra into a few large button mushrooms lurking in the fridge. Really simple, but it turned out surprisingly delicious. The edges of the stuffing crisped up beautifully, while the insides remained soft and creamy inside the juicy mushrooms. I would happily do an "up-size" version with fat and meaty portobello mushrooms the next time round.